Jerry Lucas wasn’t particularly tall or bruising, nor was he a great leaper, but his name can be found at the top of any list of great rebounding forwards in NBA history. The 6-foot-8 Lucas hauled down 12,942 rebounds for an average of 15.6 per game, the fourth-best career mark in NBA history behind Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Bob Pettit.
Playing for three teams in his 11-year career — the Cincinnati Royals, the San Francisco Warriors and the New York Knicks — Lucas tallied 14,053 points (17.0 ppg) and finished with a lofty .499 career field-goal percentage, an impressive statistic considering that many of his points came on rainbow jumpers launched from long distance.
Although he wasn’t as big as some of the NBA’s Goliaths, Lucas was a complete player. A hard-nosed worker, he banged the boards with a big frame that carried 230 to 250 pounds. His offensive repertoire included an accurate one-hand push shot that he launched from 20 to 25 feet and that went in with such regularity that one sportswriter dubbed it “the Lucas Layup.” His formidable passing skills rounded out the package.
Lucas had the rare distinction of winning championships at every level of competition — in high school, college and the pros. He was even a member of the 1960 U.S. Olympic basketball team that won a gold medal in Rome.
A soft-spoken, genial big man, Lucas grew up in Middletown, Ohio, where he achieved basketball notoriety at an early age. As a sophomore at Middletown High School, he scored 53 and 44 points in consecutive games at a state tournament. His team won 76 consecutive games and earned two state championships, and Lucas was named Ohio Player of the Year in 1957 and 1958.
At Ohio State University, Lucas played center on a legendary Buckeyes team that went 78-6, won three Big Ten titles and captured the NCAA Championship in 1960. He earned College Player of the Year honors in 1961 and 1962.
The youngest player selected for the 1960 U.S. Olympic Team, the 20-year-old Lucas was originally slated to come off the bench behind future NBA stars Walt Bellamy and Darrall Imhoff. But Lucas emerged as a starter during the tournament and even tied Oscar Robertson for the team scoring lead with 17.0 ppg. In an early-round contest against Japan, Lucas hit all 14 of his field goal attempts for 28 points.
In 1962, the Royals claimed Lucas as a territorial draft choice, but the highly sought-after star signed instead with the Cleveland Pipers of the rival American Basketball League. When his deal with that franchise fell through, he sat out a year and joined the Royals at the start of the 1963-64 season.
Lucas didn’t disappoint Cincinnati fans. Shifted to forward in the pros, he nevertheless averaged 17.4 rebounds in his first year, finishing third in the league in total rebounds behind Russell and Chamberlain. Lucas also scored 17.7 ppg and topped the NBA in field-goal percentage at .527. He was voted a starter in the 1964 NBA All-Star Game and won NBA Rookie of the Year honors at season’s end.
The next year Lucas became a full-fledged star. He averaged 21.4 points and 20.0 rebounds in 1964-65, becoming only the third player in NBA history to average “20 and 20” for a season. He scored 25 points and grabbed 10 rebounds at the 1965 NBA All-Star Game, leading the East to a 124-123 victory was named MVP. Lucas capped off the season with an All-NBA First Team selection, too.
Lucas continued to post big numbers, but aside from All-Star Oscar Robertson, the Royals never fielded a sufficiently strong supporting cast to vie for the championship. Lucas recalled later that the long stretch of futility took a toll on him. “All those years in Cincinnati were pretty frustrating,” he recalled. “I thought, for the longest time, that there was no way I would ever be on a championship club.”
In 1965-66 Lucas again reached the 20-point, 20-rebound mark. He averaged 21.1 rebounds and broke into the top 10 in scoring with 21.5 ppg. He earned another All-Star berth and a second straight selection to the All-NBA First Team. The following year Lucas contributed 17.8 ppg and 19.1 rpg and landed on the All-NBA Second Team.
In the 1967-68 season Lucas topped Russell and was second only to Chamberlain in total rebounds. He grabbed 1,560 boards for the season, an average of 19.0 per game. He also ranked eighth in scoring (21.5 ppg) and third in field-goal percentage (.519). He was selected to the All-NBA First Team for the third time in his career.
Before the 1969-70 season, former Boston Celtics legend Bob Cousy was hired to coach the Royals and rebuild the team. Cousy wanted small, fast forwards who could drive to the hoop, and Lucas didn’t fit that mold. Early in the 1969-70 season, the six-time All-Star was traded to the San Francisco Warriors for Jim King and Bill Turner. Lucas welcomed the change of scenery.
Critics in Cincinnati had accused Lucas of poor work habits and of being out of shape. Although statistics showed he was highly productive, he admitted to some of the charges. “I drifted into a whole lot of bad habits,” he conceded after arriving in the Bay Area. “The last four years with the Cincinnati Royals I didn’t work as hard as I could have.”
In San Francisco, Lucas ran into more trouble. A month after joining the Warriors, he broke his right hand.
Lucas returned to action to finish the 1969-70 season with a 15.1 scoring average. The next year he bounced back to average 19.2 ppg and 15.8 rpg for the Warriors, earning a starting spot in the 1971 NBA All-Star Game. Then, on May 7, 1971, Lucas was shipped back East, this time to the New York Knicks for charismatic Cazzie Russell in a one-for-one blockbuster trade.
At the time of the trade, Lucas was a respected veteran. He had put up Hall of Fame-caliber numbers and had made the NBA All-Star Team in seven of his first eight seasons. His rebounding totals were piling up. At that point, only centers Chamberlain and Bellamy had more career rebounds among active players.
But he was an aging big man with ailing knees. He’d never played in an NBA title game and his career was on the downswing. The Knicks had clearly acquired him to back up their forwards and to spell Willis Reed, their All-Star center who was similarly hobbled by bad knees.
Then, early in 1971-72 Lucas’ career received a second life. During the 11th game of the campaign, Reed went down with a season-ending injury, and Lucas was forced into full-time duty in the pivot.
Back at center, where he hadn’t played since college, Lucas looked as if he were at home again. He led the Knicks in rebounding (13.1 rpg), placed second to Walt Frazier in assists (4.1 apg), and contributed 16.7 ppg. He was the smallest center in the league, but his deadly outside shot, good passing and adept ballhandling blended well with coach William “Red” Holzman’s team-oriented style of basketball. Filling in for Reed, Lucas played a key role in helping the Knicks reach the 1972 NBA Finals, where they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games.
For Lucas, it was a basketball renaissance. “I’m having more fun now than I’ve had the past 10 years, even back into college,” he said at the time. “I always felt the Knicks played the game the way it was meant to be played. I enjoy playing the pivot position. I enjoy it more than playing forward … Naturally, I can’t do some things that the bigger guys can do. Number one, I’m not a shot-blocker, like the real big centers.”
Nevertheless, teammates appreciated his clutch play. Dave DeBusschere, a standout forward for the Knicks, said of Lucas in 1972: “He gets the big rebound, makes the big play on defense, makes the tap shot when you need a basket the most.”
Although he had never been considered a great defender, Lucas also began to win accolades for keeping opposing centers in check offensively. He relied on his veteran savvy and intelligence to help set up the defense. “I knew every play of every team in the league,” he once boasted to the New York Post. “I had memorized them.”
In 1972-73, Reed returned to the starting lineup and Lucas played a diminished role. For the first time in his career he was unable to reach double figures in scoring or rebounding, averaging only 9.9 ppg and 7.2 rpg. Still, Lucas and Reed were such a good pair that a reporter tagged the tandem “Willis Lucas.” Lucas was a key contributor to the Knicks’ drive for the NBA title, which was capped by their upset of the Lakers in five games.
Lucas retired following the 1973-74 season, calling it quits at age 34 with two years left on his contract. During his basketball career he had always been an enterprising businessman. Upon his retirement, he started venturing out into new business opportunities.
Several of his ideas evolved from a lifelong fascination with memory tricks, word games and old-fashioned magic. As a child Lucas had developed alphabetizing systems and memory games as a way to challenge himself. They would later prove useful in his academic studies at Ohio State, from which Lucas graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
“John Havlicek of the Celtics was my roommate at Ohio State. I used to drive him crazy,” Lucas recalled in The Sporting News. “I’d be finished with my studies in 20 minutes. He’d work all night.”
His mnemonic skills and affinity for numbers amazed and amused teammates, but Lucas had serious ambitions of becoming a professional entertainer. As “Luke the Magician” he created and hosted a television special called “The Jerry Lucas Super Kids Day Magic Jamboree,” which featured educational word games, number puzzles and magic tricks.
In the early 1970s he put his memory to the test when he appeared on television and amazed a national audience with his ability to memorize the first 500 pages of the Manhattan phone directory. After retirement, Lucas achieved success when he co-authored The Memory Book, a how-to bestseller that sold more than two million copies. During the late 1980s, he established Lucas Learning Inc., an educational company that published memory and learning materials for children. Lucas has written more than 30 books on the subject.
In 1979, Lucas was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He was an NBA All-Star seven times, a member of the All-NBA First Team three times, and a All-NBA Second Team selection twice. His efforts earned him a spot on the NBA 50th Anniversary Team and Lucas still looms large in the memories of NBA fans.